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50+: Live Better, Longer

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'Say What?!'

Hearing loss doesn't just happen to the elderly. Many people in their 40s and 50s have some degree of hearing loss.
WebMD Feature

If you're in or approaching middle age and were raised on ear-splitting concerts by bands such as Grand Funk Railroad and Led Zeppelin, today you might find hearing loss an unwelcome fact of life. More often than you'd like, you may strain to hear conversations and music that once were as clear and pure as a Santana riff. Whereas you used to be able to hear a pin drop -- quite literally -- you now might find yourself coping with hearing loss at a younger age than you imagined possible, asking people to repeat themselves and making a habit of saying "pardon?"

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For the Woodstock generation, hearing is no longer something to take for granted. About 28 million Americans have hearing loss, and according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), it occurs among adults of all ages. In fact, the prevalence of hearing loss among younger men and women is on the rise. About 14% of people between ages 45 and 64 have hearing loss (an increase of 26% in this age group since 1971). And as the baby boomers continue to age, the incidence of hearing loss is expected to grow.

Missing Out on Life

The scenario is much too common -- and often too painful -- for men and women in their 40s and 50s. They might sit silently at dinner parties, having difficulty following the conversation. They may feel completely lost when attending the theater, straining to hear what the actors are saying.

Specialists in assessing hearing loss, whose waiting rooms were once filled primarily with the elderly, are now routinely treating people who otherwise consider themselves to be in the prime of life. "I see much younger people in my office who have 'notches' in their hearing that we know come from noise exposure," says audiologist Angela Loavenbruck, EdD, immediate past president of the American Academy of Audiology. These so-called noise "notches," which show up on the graph of a hearing test called an audiogram, can indicate a sharp drop in hearing ability.

"I recently treated a drummer who is constantly exposed to very loud music," says Loavenbruck, who is in private practice in New City, N.Y. "He has absolutely normal hearing across most frequencies, but at about a 2,000 or 4,000 cycle tone, his hearing takes a sharp drop. We see the same thing in many people exposed to workplace noise."

In their 20s, these individuals might not notice any hearing loss, even though they may have already begun to experience damage within the inner ear. But by the middle years, says Loavenbruck, the hearing loss may become progressively more noticeable and significant.

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